The Grammarphobia Blog

A wonky question

[An updated post about "wonk," "wonky," and "wonkish" appeared on the blog on July 2, 2014.]

Q: I’m reading an Angela Thirkell novel, High Rising, and one of the characters (young Tony Morland) repeatedly uses the term “wonky” to mean nutty or neurotic. Can you tell me more about the origin of this word?

A: Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say “wonky” is chiefly British and means shaky, unsteady, or awry.

But many Americans these days use both “wonk” and “wonky” to mean overly studious or obsessed with details – that is, wonkish or nerdy. [See update below.]

The first reference for “wonky” in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1919 citation in which Lord Northcliffe, a newspaper magnate, writes of being “weak, and wonky, as the telephone girls say, after a bad morning with the subscribers.”

When Angela Thirkell wrote High Rising in the early 1930s, “wonky” was well established as an adjective to describe an unstable or unsound person or thing. Kipling, in his last collection of stories, Limits and Renewals (1932), refers to a wonky headlight. And Edgar Wallace, in his novel The Strange Countess (1925), refers to financial accounts “that went a little wonky.”

But where does “wonky” come from? American Heritage suggests that it may be derived from the Old English word wancol, meaning unsteady or insecure.

As for the noun “wonk,” it first appeared in print in 1929, according to the OED, and has had various meanings over the years, including a useless naval hand, a white person, and an effeminate man.

Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, has traced the use of “wonk” for a studious or hard-working person to a 1954 article in Time magazine. He says the usage may have originated at Harvard, where students were called wonks, preppies, or jocks, according to a 1962 article in Sports Illustrated.

The use of “wonk” or “wonkish” to refer to someone obsessed with minute points of policy is relatively recent. The first published reference in the OED is from a 1992 Washington Post article that refers to “a lot of wonkish material” (targeted tax cuts, community policing, education reform).

One apparently dubious suggestion is that “wonk” is “know” spelled backwards. Another is that “wonk” is related to the slang term “wanker,” meaning masturbator. A third is that it’s derived from Willy Wonka, Roald Dahl’s eccentric chocolate maker.

But all this is speculative. Most etymologists say the origin of “wonk” is unknown.

[Update, June 12, 2014: Newer definitions appear in later editions of the dictionaries we cited above. The OED includes this meaning of “wonkish,” which it says originated in American politics: “excessively concerned with minute points of (governmental) policy.” American Heritage (5th ed.) defines “wonk” as  “1. A student who studies excessively; a grind. 2. One who studies an issue or topic thoroughly or excessively: 'leading a talkathon of policy wonks in a methodical effort to build consensus for his programs.  And the newest version of Merriam-Webster’s 11th says “wonk” means “a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field; broadly 'nerd,’ ” and gives the examples “a policy wonk” and “a computer wonk.”]

 

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